Every relationship demands compromises: You might be a clean freak while your partner's a slob, or you might like horror films while your partner prefers comedies. But when the compromise is more trying—like when you're sober, and your partner isn't—the differences can threaten to destroy your relationship.
A Norwegian Institute of Public Health study of almost 20,000 married Norwegians showed the highest rate of divorce—26.8 percent—happened with couples where the husband was a light drinker and the wife was a binge drinker. Married couples who consumed a moderate amount of alcohol together were far less likely to divorce than couples where one was a heavy drinker and the other was not.
So is it possible to stay together when one person is sober and the other person continues to get fucked up? And if so, what are the biggest hurdles to overcome? We spoke to two couples who had to confront that question. Neither are married, but they're both in long-term, stable relationships. We've changed their names to protect their privacy.
"Chris" and "Anne"
Chris: We got together about a year ago, and I was sober. I'll be four years sober in July. When we got together, she was still in party mode and was newly single and was drinking a lot. I thought it was just going to be a casual thing—I was just like, "Oh, she's wild. She's hot. This is fun." And then after about a couple of months or so, I started to develop stronger feelings for her and her behavior with her drinking got progressively more dramatic.
One night, when we were at a bar, she got really out of control. We go back to her house, and she runs off to the alleyway. She picks up this big stick, and she's yelling, "You're trying to control me! You're trying to control me!" because I was telling her she had a drinking problem. She fell, she hit her knee, she threw trashcans everywhere, and then she locked herself in her bedroom. I busted the door down, and I held her down and said, "You're a fucking alcoholic. You need to quit drinking, or I'm not gonna put up with this shit."
She was like, "I don't have a drinking problem. You're fucking crazy. You're trying to control me. I'm just having fun." And we did that for about a month or so where she'd get drunk like that. Then one day she came to my house, and she was so wasted that she went into my closet and was about to piss. I go in there, I pick her up, and say, "What the fuck are you doing?" She goes in the bathroom and wipes with my roommate's towel. In the morning, she woke up and she was like, "Wow, maybe I do have a problem."
Anne: That was the last time I drank.
Chris: At this point, we were in love. In my sobriety, it wasn't the best thing, because it could become very triggering for me.
"I would smell the alcohol on her breath, and it would really stress me out because of my prior drinking problem."
Anne: An observation I made recently about my sex life is that every person I've ever had sex with—the first time I had sex with them, I was drunk. Chris was the only person who it wasn't that way with. Chris and I fooled around while I was wasted or passed out, but Chris was the one who was like, "I'm not comfortable yet!" So I was the one pursuing sex hardcore, especially when I was drunk.
Chris: That's why I felt so shy. When I used to drink, it was much easier for me to hit on girls and be sexual. But being sober, I felt like shy and awkward. She would just fucking grab me. She's very aggressive. And I was just like, "Whoa!"
Anne: For me, drinking was an easier way for me to have sex with people. I didn't realize that until I got sober. Now that I have sober sex, I look back and realize that was me being insecure with my body and afraid and nervous and dealing with it by drinking.
Chris: Socially, there were issues. I was embarrassed by her behavior. She thought she was just having a good time. Like, "Fuck the world! I'm having fun! I'm free!" That quickly got old. I was very embarrassed by her behavior, and I thought people would judge me because I was sober, and I was with a bar-drunk person. I would go out to bars with her, and we would kiss, and I would smell the alcohol on her breath, and it would really stress me out because of my prior drinking problem.
Anne: I asked on our first date, "Do you want me to be sober around you?" and Chris said no. I'd go out to a bar and Chris would be like, "I wanna come. It's cool."
Chris: Because I wanted to spend time with her! I also was attracted to her drinking at first in my own warped way, because I felt shy too. So if I'm not intoxicated, and she's intoxicated, then maybe I'll feel less shy because I thought she wasn't judging me as much. So I almost felt that social lubricant wearing onto me as well.
Anne: We had dated for four or five months before I stopped drinking.
Chris: Once I realized I did want to become exclusive, that's when I got real. Like, "You gotta quit drinking, and we need to be together!" I kind of freaked out a bit because I was seeing her with other people. There was this one time when we were at this bar, and she was making out with this guy in front of me, and she says, "I love you." And it was the first time she told me she loved me, and it made me so mad. And I was like, "You fucking bitch." She was just drunk and having a good old time, and she looked over at me.
Anne: I was also on cocaine and Xanax. I was really wasted.
Chris: I was falling in love with you, and that's why it was so disturbing to me. Because I was like, What am I doing?
Anne: Now I'm nine months sober from alcohol and most other things.
Chris: She's still "wild." We have a little bit of a power struggle, which keeps things interesting, I'd say.
"Melissa" and "Alex"
Melissa: With previous partners, having drunk sex was something I had just been accustomed to. I go out, I drink, I get drunk, and I have sex with my partner. It's just something that you enjoy together, in your drunken haze.
When I started doing that with my current boyfriend—he's completely sober, doesn't drink whatsoever—it was really weird. I would act sloppier and more liberated, and he was completely sober and having sex with me while I was not in the right state of mind. Half the time, the next morning, what really bothered me was that I couldn't even remember what happened. I'd remember us getting into bed but not even remember what happened.
Alex: The next day she'd say, "Why did we do that?" I feel bad either way. I don't like doing it. In the beginning of the relationship, I would, but now after a year and a half, I don't. I just tell her no every single time because she gets upset the next day. I don't like that, and I don't like the feeling either, because it feels pressuring on me. But it's still kind of taking advantage of her. If I was drunk and she wasn't, it would be the same correlation that I'd be taken advantage of. I don't want to do that.
Melissa: It took a while to get used to him not drinking because everyone else I used to date pretty much drank a lot, so it was weird to date someone who didn't drink at all. I do think it has affected our relationship. He used to go out with me a lot when we first started dating. A lot of times, he'd be the DD for me and my friends, but after a while of us getting more comfortable with each other, he's told me he doesn't enjoy going out with us while we drink. At a certain point in the night, we get really drunk, and we're pretty plastered and being annoying drunk people, and if you've ever been the DD, you know that being the DD kind of sucks when people are behaving very buffoonishly. He doesn't go out with me as much anymore, and I one hundred percent don't blame him.
Alex: It feels like everyone just uses me as the DD, which I'm not. I'm just there to hang out. When it becomes that, and people become way too drunk, and I have to deal with it all and make sure everyone gets home safely, it becomes rather tedious and annoying. I have a busy schedule and a busy life, so being around everyone who's drunk or high becomes more work to me than it is pleasure.
If I decide to stay home and she goes out, I'll pick her up, but as long as she doesn't get mad at me for wanting to stay home and do what I enjoy—which is video games and reading and just relaxing after work, since I work every single day—we get along really well. As long as we do spend time with each other or go out with her friends or go out just together without drinking, it works out fine.
At this point in our relationship, she only really drinks once or twice a week. It works out fine. Me not drinking is a personal choice. If anyone else wants to drink, it's up to him or her. I just choose to never drink or get messed up. It works out fine between us because she doesn't just care about drinking; we enjoy other things together.
These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
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